Boosting Covid-19 vaccine uptake and saving for retirement – same thing?

Since Covid-19 vaccines are finally being approved by regulators in the US, UK, Canada and many more countries following soon, the second part of the battle is just beginning – how to get as many people as possible vaccinated. One might think this will be first a logistical problem, but in reality it’s more of a behavioral problem. Uptake of the vaccines is voluntary, so the first challenge is how to convince people to get them. Luckily many renowned behavioral scientists, like Nobel laureate Richard Thaler, Katy Milkman, Cass Sunstein and the likes, have already come up with interesting nudges to get the job done as fast as possible and interestingly enough many nudges are very similar to increasing retirement savings. 

Kathy Milkman writes in The Economist the challenge is two fold, first people who aren’t ideologically opposed to vaccines need to be convinced to take the shots, and second, we need to make sure people will actually follow through on their intentions. Keeping in mind vaccines need two doses to reach the full effect, although the first dose already significantly improves immunisation. As one of the strategies to increase vaccine uptake Milkman suggests using “social proof” to increase the appeal of getting the vaccine as research shows people look to their peers for cues about how to behave [1]. A great example of this is the fact former Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton already volunteered to get a coronavirus vaccine publicly to prove it’s safe and this is a living example of social proof in action. Similarly, getting high-profile people to encourage retirement saving has been a long used and effective strategy. 

Milkman also suggests making people getting vaccinated more visual, to encourage others to follow, the same as people get The “I Voted” stickers when they vote people should now get the “I got the Covid-19 vaccine” sticker. This suggestion is great, as I wrote also in my article from July, the challenge of intangibility was already very much present in relation to keeping up preventive measures against the epidemic in the first place (hand-washing, wearing masks, …) and this nicely addresses it. Retirement saving faces a similar challenge as the benefit of retirement saving is also for the most part intangible.   

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If we return to Covid-19 vaccines, Nobel laureate Richard Thaler proposes in his The New York Times article selling a small proportion of early doses to the rich and famous. Besides raising money that could be used to help the ones most hit by the epidemic, Thaler believes other people seeing celebrities make large payments for vaccines could be persuaded to follow them and also get vaccinated. One important thing Thaler also stresses is making it easy to get the vaccine. Making the process as smooth as possible and also once people get the first shot immediately scheduling their second shot and get them to make specific plans to come and then send them electronic reminders for their appointments [2]. These kinds of electronic or phone prompts have been well proven to increase anything from credit card repayments to visiting doctors appointments and Nina Mazar, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely have written a nice piece about it [3].

Making saving for retirement easy with as little friction as possible has been one of the priorities of many programs designed to promote retirement saving and the program Richard Thaler devised together with Shlomo Benartzi (Save More Tomorrow) emphasised among many things just that. One of the more ingenious ideas in their program was automatic enrolment in workplace retirement saving plans that turns the behavioral bias of procrastination (status quo bias) around to help us save for retirement instead of hindering it. Just an idea, but maybe automatic enrolment with the option of opt-out could also be used in vaccination programs with large employers once the supply of vaccines will be sufficient and that will for sure massively increase the uptake, as the default option would be for all employees to get vaccinated and the ones who will not won’t it will need to opt out.  

The World Health Organization also did not forget about the role behavioral science can have in increasing vaccine uptake and published a special report on behavioural considerations for acceptance and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines prepared by it`s Technical Advisory Group chaired by Cass Sunstein.

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The report explores many factors influencing vaccines uptake, from environmental factors giving vaccination in a close by, convenient locations free of charge, to making social norms in favour of vaccination more salient, supporting health professionals to promote vaccination and amplifying endorsements from trusted community members. The report also establishes it will be key to increasing motivation of people through open and transparent dialogue and communication about uncertainty and risks, including around the safety and benefits of vaccinations [4]. 

With all the behavioral science experts contributing their ideas on how to increase covid-19 vaccinations I have no doubt we will quickly get there, I just really encourage politicians and others influencing public policies to listen to them and use their wast experiences to help end this pandemic as soon as possible and save as many lives as possible. And once it’s over let’s not forget the lessons learned and put our focus on the next big threat to our societies which is the demographic shift and the retirement saving crisis which is also intangible and distant, the same as Covid-19 was in march, and we need to address this issue head on and behavioral science can make all the difference. We just have to use it. 


[1] Kathy Milkman, Katy Milkman on how to nudge people to accept a covid-19 vaccine. The Economist, 2020. Retrieved from: Responding to covid-19 – Katy Milkman on how to nudge people to accept a covid-19 vaccine | By Invitation | The Economist 

[2] Richard H. Thaler, Getting Everyone Vaccinated, With ‘Nudges’ and Charity Auctions, The New York Times, 2020. Retrieved from: Getting Everyone Vaccinated, With ‘Nudges’ and Charity Auctions – The New York Times (

[3] Nina Mazar, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely. If You Are Going to Pay Within the Next 24 Hours, Press 1: Automatic Planning Prompt Reduces Credit Card Delinquency. Journal of Consumer Psychology published by Wiley Periodicals, 2018. Retrieved from: If You Are Going to Pay Within the Next 24 Hours, Press 1: Automatic Planning Prompt Reduces Credit Card Delinquency – Mazar – 2018 – Journal of Consumer Psychology – Wiley Online Library

[4] Behavioural considerations for acceptance and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines: WHO Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health, meeting report, October 2020. Retrieved from: 9789240016927-eng.pdf (

Published by Ziga Vizintin

Nudging people to save for retirement one nudge at a time.

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